early and often

What the Most Diverse GOP Primary Ever Says About the GOP

From left to right: Will Hurd, Francis Suarez, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy.
From left to right: Will Hurd, Francis Suarez, Tim Scott, Nikki Haley, and Vivek Ramaswamy. Photo-Illustration: Intelligencer; Photos: Getty Images

There are many attributes that make Tim Scott unique. In 2014, he became the first Black senator from the Deep South to be elected since Reconstruction, which also made him one of the few Black senators, period. He’s one of five Black members of Congress currently representing the GOP, a party that is now, both numerically and ideologically, the party of white people. What Tim Scott is not, despite his protests, is an iconoclast who bucks misconceptions about America’s racial history and the Republican Party’s stance on race-related issues.

“I chose personal responsibility over resentment,” Scott said at the announcement of his presidential campaign in May. “The truth of my life disrupts their lies.” These so-called lies, proliferated by the left, include the idea that Scott is a Trojan horse for white revanchism and, more broadly, that race is a determinative force in American life. His go-to retort to accusations that he’s a “token” or a “prop” is that his critics can’t handle the fact that he’s his own man.

This was always rich, coming from someone who trots out personal anecdotes about getting racially profiled to shore up his claims to a typical Black experience but insists that defeating racism is best done using one’s bootstraps. And it’s especially striking in the context of the 2024 presidential primary, which features the most diverse GOP field in history — full of people, like Scott, who seem committed to indulging the party’s basest and least tolerant impulses.

There’s his fellow South Carolinian Nikki Haley, the daughter of Sikh Indian immigrants, who served as the state’s governor before joining the Trump administration as ambassador to the U.N. There’s her fellow Indian American, entrepreneur Vivek Ramaswamy, and his fellow first-generation tech enthusiast, Francis Suarez, the Cuban American mayor of Miami. Rounding out the bunch is Will Hurd, the Black former congressman who ditched his post representing Texas’s majority-Hispanic 23rd District for an assortment of university fellowships and tech-company board positions.

Ten years earlier, this group would’ve been regarded as a sign of the party’s bright future. The RNC’s now-infamous 2012 autopsy, the “Growth and Opportunity Project,” identified the GOP’s whiteness as its weakness. “If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity,” wrote the report’s authors, who included George W. Bush’s press secretary and Jeb Bush’s 2016 senior campaign adviser.

The upshot was that if Republicans could remake their party in the electorate’s diversifying image, they could save themselves from electoral ruin. That notion feels laughable today, after Donald Trump showed that you could, by circumventing the popular vote and leaning into the Electoral College’s peculiarities, win office appealing almost exclusively to whites. He is poised to win the Republican nomination once again in 2024, and the minority candidates trailing him badly in the polls seem less like they’re running their own campaigns than a glorified audition to be his running mate.

So a more accurate description of what happened over the last decade is that the GOP’s non-white rising stars remade themselves in the party’s image, just as the party was becoming a lot less tolerant. The result is a set of Black and brown presidential candidates who, rather than putting their own culturally specific spin on GOP values, have sanded down their differences to appease white reactionaries.

Scott is a prime example. For years, the senator was seen by both parties as an earnest partner on criminal-justice reform, serving as an original co-sponsor of the 2018 First Step Act, which sought to shorten prison sentences and free the incarcerated more quickly. When protests erupted after the killing of George Floyd in 2020, Scott helped lead negotiations on a policing bill, which had bipartisan support and included his idea to make local cops adopt federal standards to receive federal funds. But as it became clear that Trump’s reelection and GOP control of the Senate depended on branding Republicans as the party of social order, Scott turned against his own idea, smeared the Democrats as wanting to “defund the police,” and abandoned the negotiating table.

Nikki Haley is known for overseeing the 2015 removal of the Confederate flag from the South Carolina statehouse after Dylann Roof brandished it before massacring a Black church meeting — a moment that seemed to be part of the GOP’s post-2012 push for greater inclusivity. But for most of her tenure, she defended its display as a symbol of “heritage” rather than white supremacy and later claimed that Roof had “hijacked” it. She has since cast the aftermath of these murders as a time when she had to protect South Carolina from outsiders she suspected of wanting to sow division. These outsiders included President Obama and Jesse Jackson, who graciously visited South Carolina to better “understand,” in Haley’s words, the state where he’d grown up.

More recently, Haley could be found calling for Raphael Warnock, the Black senator from Georgia, to be deported because she felt he wasn’t patriotic enough. “Legal immigrants are more patriotic than the leftists these days,” she said in November, “so the only person we need to make sure we deport is Warnock.”

Will Hurd was a nominal Trump skeptic until it came to the president’s actual agenda, which he voted for 80 percent of the time, including efforts to gut the Affordable Care Act and prevent the establishment of basic care standards for detained migrants. His announcement video features the typical GOP fearmongering about “illegal immigration and fentanyl streaming into our country,” suggesting that immigrants are to blame for an opioid crisis that was actually set in motion by American pharmaceutical companies.

Suarez might be the most peculiar of the bunch in that he’s essentially a Bush-era Republican — more dovish on immigration than his hard-right compatriots but equally resolute in criminalizing abortion, a restriction that disproportionately affects Black women. The overturning of Roe v. Wade, Suarez said in June, was “the greatest day defending life in our history.”

Ramaswamy is facing the steepest uphill battle to prove his conservative bona fides — as a businessman he has no voting record to be judged by. He recently published a list of ideologues he’d nominate to the Supreme Court if given the opportunity, including “originalists” like Ted Cruz and Mike Lee. He has also branded himself as the field’s “anti-woke” candidate, calling “wokeness” a “cancer” and decrying the idea that “identity is based on the color of your skin, your race, your gender, or your sexual orientation” — all characteristics that identity is, in fact, partly based on. He rejects the idea that the private sector should dedicate itself to “correct for those injustices” that stem from these characteristics.

You’d have to squint hard to see how any of this conduct differs meaningfully from that of any other Republican official, to say nothing of how it constitutes “sincere” outreach to minorities. It’s ironic because Black and brown voters are demonstrably more curious about the GOP than they have been in years — the Republican vote share was about three points less white in 2022 than in 2016 — but the party has struggled to capitalize because it’s so committed to demonizing them.

It hasn’t much mattered that the GOP program amounts to a doctrine of punishment against minorities — fewer rights and protections, courtesy of the Supreme Court; more draconian forms of retribution, like the Trump-era immigration crackdowns; and less economic assistance from the government, from the right’s war on debt relief to its opposition to anti-poverty initiatives, like those contained in the American Rescue Plan. We now have a primary field that’s more ethnically diverse than ever before but also more ideologically extreme, bursting with the right’s most distasteful ideas.

In the last election cycle, Lindsay Graham claimed it was the Democrats’ greatest fear for a Black Republican like Herschel Walker to win a Senate race, because it would “transform the Republican Party” by attracting more minorities to its growing multiracial coalition. But with opponents like these, it’s clear that diversity was the wrong metric — the bigger fear is that the party will look different but behave no less odiously.

What the Most Diverse GOP Primary Ever Says About the GOP